Hate mail, unofficial bans and Super Bowls: Long journey of the Black QB

·9 min read
<span>Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP</span>
Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

The Guardian caught up with Jason Reid to chat about his new book, which tell the story of the men who laid the foundation for today’s Black superstar quarterbacks and how modern players, such as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, are navigating the unconscious bias and conscious racism that continue to permeate US society.

Fritz Pollard is a monumental figure in NFL history, as well as in your book. I know you spent time with grandson. Can you explain Pollard’s impact on the game?

Jason Reid: Pollard was the first African American superstar in the NFL. He was listed as a running back though he played quarterback – not quarterback in the sense that we know it with the formations we know. But he was a quarterback too and he was the first Black head coach. It’s monumental on many levels. With regards to the quarterback position, someone had to be the first. He was an All-Pro in the first year of the league. He was a star in the first year of the league. And in a league that wasn’t welcoming at that point to Black men, he was an absolute outlier.

There was a disturbing period of 12years (1934-1946), when no Black players were in the NFL. Do you believe the owners had a formal agreement?

More than likely, it was a gentleman’s agreement that we’re just not going to have Blacks anymore. You talk about some Indiana Jones type of stuff if someone could find and authenticate a document that said we’re not going to have Black players in the league. But it probably doesn’t exist. There probably wasn’t a need to put it on paper.

Has the NFL done enough to acknowledge this period?

A lot of people argue no. I remember thinking to myself that it’s clearly a delicate situation for the league. On the one hand, a 12-year ban on Black players is not something the league would necessarily want to celebrate, but I think historical context is always important. But you understand why the league wouldn’t want to draw attention to that part of its history because it’s a very shameful part.

Which Black quarterback in NFL history doesn’t get enough credit?

This one is easy. Marlin Briscoe played at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, a small school. He was about 5ft 9in, 170lbs something. His nickname was The Magician. If Briscoe were playing today, think Kyler Murray.

The Denver Broncos drafted him in 1968 but Black men were not being drafted to play quarterback in the 1960s. So, the plan was to move Marlin to be a cornerback. Well, he tells the Broncos, much to their surprise, “I’m not going to sign with you guys unless you give me a try at quarterback”. They did because they knew they would never give him the job. Briscoe performed well in his tryout, but it was rigged. But then the starter gets hurt and the backup is ineffective. You have a situation where the team is struggling so they throw Briscoe in there because they have no one else and he lights it up. He winds up throwing 14 touchdown passes, which is a Broncos rookie record that still stands even though John Elway was a Broncos rookie at one point.

Then he goes home to work on his degree in Omaha and gets a tip that the Broncos are having quarterback meetings without him. They just took the job from him. So basically, they cut him late so he couldn’t land anywhere else in the NFL. He winds up going to Candida, like a lot of Black quarterbacks do, but Canada wasn’t for him.

Doug Williams was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl
Doug Williams was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Photograph: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

He comes back and reinvents himself, becomes a top wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills. Then he gets traded from the Bills to the Miami Dolphins where he’s on Don Shula’s undefeated team and wins two Super Bowls. He had a very good NFL career except he never played QB again.

Briscoe retires and makes a very good living in the financial industry in LA. But he winds up getting hooked on drugs and ends up in jail. In jail one day, he watches [another Black quarterback] Doug Williams beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. He feels that Doug’s success that date is in part due to him. Briscoe wound up off drugs, got his life together and worked at the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach for years. He sadly passed away this past June.

Fast-forwarding a bit into the modern era, talk about Mike Vick’s early career and the importance of playing in a diverse city like Atlanta

In Atlanta, you talk about a city with a huge African American culture and Vick played at a time when the whole hip-hop industry was blowing up and he’s a big part of that. Vick played unapologetically Black. His style of play was I’m going to come out here and be me and he was successful with it.

What modern quarterbacks do you think have followed suit – in other words, being unapologetically Black?

I think Lamar Jackson has. It’s interesting because Black people come from all kinds of backgrounds, socio-economic backgrounds, different upbringings. So it’s not like we all conform to a certain path. But when you talk about the approach in being who you are, Michael Vick did not try and be someone else. Lamar Jackson does not try and be someone else. They perform in a way that says accept me for who I am and if you don’t like it, so be it

Are there some quarterbacks who you think have felt like they’ve had to hide their blackness?

What I will say is there was a time when Black QBs would not speak out on social justice issues no matter what they thought. Colin Kaepernick obviously changed all that. Now we see Patrick Mahomes has spoken out on issues and Dak Prescott has too. Initially Dak took some heat from the Black community because they felt like he was towing the company line, but he broke with [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones about the protesting. I believe we are not at a point where Black men at that position feel they can be authentic in terms of putting their views out there if they choose.

You just mentioned Mahomes and in 2020 , in the wake of the George Floyd shooting, he famously took part in the powerful, player-led PSA that inspired Roger Goodell to apologize to players for the past and acknowledge that Black lives matter. If Mahomes wasn’t the “face of the league” at that point, would that PSA have had the same impact?

There’s no way it would have the same impact. What that did was force Roger Goodell to have a fork in the road. At that point Mahomes was the guy. He was the league MVP the previous year. When that video was made, he was coming off a Super Bowl championship. There was no question that he was at the top of the QB chart and QB is the most important position in the league. So with him being in that video saying what he said, it was inconceivable that the league would be on the opposite position of Patrick Mahomes. It just wouldn’t have worked. And Goodell understood the realities of the country dealing with the horrific videotaped murder of a Black man that illustrated what many had said about law enforcement and people in our community. It was so undeniably obvious that what happened to that man was wrong. For the league to come and say, no Black lives don’t matter is just not a position the league could have taken.

Do you feel like there were enough prominent white allies in the period of Colin Kaepernick and the protests that followed?

There were some white players like Chris Long, who stood with Malcolm Jenkins and was authentic, and there were others who were allies of the players who were protesting. But there were also many players who disagreed with the protesting. And not all Black players agreed that taking a knee was the right position. That’s OK, everyone doesn’t have to agree. But the thing for me is that you now had superstar QBs taking a stand like they never had before. As I write in the book, it would have been shocking to see Joe Montana or John Elway say something, but Patrick Mahomes literally had skin in the game. It’s a different level when this is something that’s in your home.

Lamar Jackson, despite being the NFL’s MVP in 2019, is still not considered a true quarterback by some. Has the league shifted its definition of what a true quarterback is, and maybe it’s just that chunk of America that’s behind?

Mike Sando of The Athletic does his QB tiers every year and you’ve read about anonymous defensive coordinators saying that Jackson can’t pass: “If he has to pass, they can’t win.” Is he the greatest pocket passer in the history of the NFL? Of course not. But he’s also not a finished product. The reality is he’s already exceeded the expectations of the many people who said he couldn’t even play QB. Let’s give him an opportunity to evolve.

In closing, what was the most surprising aspect of your research for the book?

As with anyone who’s studied American history, I know that racism is sewn into the fabric of our country. But in my reporting, it was all the specifics and anecdotes. Like Warren Moon talking about how when he was a starter at the University of Washington, they were booing him before home games. It was Doug Williams telling me about the racist hate mail he got when he was a rookie in Tampa Bay. It was Marlin Briscoe telling me they just gave the job away when he was back in Omaha. I just didn’t have a full grasp of how bad the overt racism was.